There is “a strong possibility” that the seven-millimeter Lefaucheux revolver which recently sold for $182,000 at a Paris auction is the very firearm Vincent Van Gogh shot himself with in 1890, claims the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The auction house which sold the Lefaucheux, Drouot Paris, explained in its item listing that this gun was found in the field where Van Gogh was said to have taken his own life, and had been on display at the inn where the artist was staying at the time of its death. The gun then made its way to the aforementioned Van Gogh museum, which included the gun in its 2016 exhibition On the Verge of Insanity. There’s evidence that’s enough to believe something you read on the internet, and then there’s evidence that will cause you to pay $182,000 for a century-old Saturday-night special, and for someone, this stuff evidently fell in the latter category.
However potentially tenuous its link to Van Gogh’s death, the gun’s sale and sheer enormity of the sum (tripling the estimate) provide reason enough for scholars and hobbyists to revisit longstanding disputes about how the renowned post-impressionist ended up dead, and various shadowy figures that may or may not have been involved.
Since not everyone gets around to scrutinizing the credibility of the “official version” of the Van Gogh suicide, let me very briefly summarize: While staying at a French hostel in 1890, Van Gogh, apparently not a gun owner, borrowed a revolver to frighten crows off, but instead shot himself in the side and passed out, eventually stumbling back from the wheat fields, sans pistolet, to the local inn where he died two days later. In the 36-ish hours in between, both a town doctor and Van Gogh’s peculiar homeopathic physician-collector/frenemy Dr. Gachet examined him, with the latter ultimately deciding that the bullet was too deeply lodged to remove. Providing the description of the wound, the notes from Dr. Gachet would be used to link a rusty old gun a farmer happened upon in a field in the 1960s to the Van Gogh legend.
Alternate theories of Van Gogh’s death and his illnesses have circulated throughout the second half of the twentieth century, and a flurry of Van Gogh-y medical literature typically pop ups with a big biography or film release, or after a new artifact or work is unearthed, or the veracity of a canvas is challenged. Most notable among these is the hypothesis, posed by Pulitzer-winning art biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, that Van Gogh died after an altercation with a group of rowdy French teens with guns — one of whom, The New York Times noted, “liked to dress up in a cowboy costume.” (A version of this theory forms the basis of the ending of At Eternity’s Gate, the 2019 Van Gogh biopic starring Willem Dafoe.)
As much as Van Gogh’s death itself remains a matter of conjecture, there exists enough testimonial evidence about his physical and mental afflictions, mostly coming from Van Gogh’s incessant complaints about various symptoms of disease that fill his letters, for enthusiastic medical scholars to publish diagnosis after diagnosis in medical journals attempting to account for the dead artist’s bizarre behaviors, physical distress, and mood shifts. The Dutch eccentric has, over the years, been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, glaucoma, a terpene craving that made him consume his paints, digitalis intoxication, drinking problems, and numerous other conditions.
Dr. Irving Kaufman Arenberg, contributed a 1990 diagnosis of an ear condition to the oeuvre of maladies Van Gogh has accrued posthumously. His correction to the record, the sensibly titled article “Van Gogh had Meniere’s Disease and Not Epilepsy,” ran in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). More recently, he published the book Killing Vincent: The Man, the Myth, and The Murder, a summation of his decades of research into the artist’s death, which argues that Van Gogh was murdered by Dr. Gachet, the semi-prominent homeopathic doctor who treated his melancholia and collected (and sometimes later sold) his art. The two men quarrelled frequently in a “friendship” that freely mixed work, medication, investments, and patronage, but Arenberg thinks it was Van Gogh’s affair with Gachet’s daughter that effectively sealed the artist’s fate. Arenberg spoke to The Outline via phone about Van Gogh’s ears, the recently-auctioned gun, and where the weapon fits into his allegations of a murder and cover-up. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Outline: How did you end up diagnosing Van Gogh with Meniere’s Disease?
Dr. Irving Kaufman Arenberg: Well, I was basically Vincent Van Gogh’s ear doctor, in the sense that I took the clinical history of attacks from his written letters to his brother, his sister and other artists.
And he described, in his own hand, that he had the attacks that were thought at the time to be epilepsy. He described them in French as vertige. There is no other translation for vertige than vertigo, and it is a very specific sense of violent rotation — coming out of the blue basically — from the inner ear, and it is not epilepsy.
So I clarified the diagnosis based on his history. That was the basis for the publication in JAMA, that the longstanding diagnosis of epilepsy was in fact, an inner ear disorder with vertigo and hallucinations of motion known as Meniere’s disease. And that was published on the 100th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death [in] July 1990.
Is that what first caused you to consider the idea his death wasn’t a suicide?
At the time, I never believed Vincent committed suicide, but I was a busy ear surgeon, and I didn’t have time to pursue that. In the book Van Gogh: A Life by Stephen Neifah and Gregory Smith White, [the authors included] an appendix [item] basically saying that they didn’t think Van Gogh committed suicide. There was a big to-do about that, as you can imagine, because that was considered blasphemy against the legend of Van Gogh’s life.
[The authors] had a world-famous forensic pathologist named Dr. Vincent J. M. Di Maio write an analysis. He went through many different ways of looking at it, and concluded that it was not possible for Vincent to self-inflict his mortal wound, and that within a reasonable degree of medical probability — which is greater than 51% — his expert opinion was that Vincent Van Gogh did not commit suicide.
When I decided to write the book, I realized that for people to believe this was a murder, I had to eliminate the acceptance that he committed suicide. The best way to do that was to take Dr. Di Maio’s analysis, and prove it by 21st-century forensic standards.
So I got the same gun as the one they just sold — the Lefaucheux seven-millimeter folding trigger gun. I got a whole bunch of antique, pin-fired bullets. I got FBI ballistic gel, and I did simulations of all the possible scenarios in which Vincent Van Gogh could have self-inflicted his wound. And I proved, I would say, to a reasonable degree of medical probability and supporting Dr. Vincent Di Maio’s conclusion, that it was not possible for Vincent Van Gogh to commit suicide. So now you’re dealing with a murder.
You also suggest an alternative theory, that he was killed with a knife and not a gun. Are you are you the first person to suggest this?
How did you get from “It couldn’t have been a suicide” to that?
WelI, I’m a doctor. [Records of Van Gogh’s death] do not have any description of a carbon-black gunpowder burn. Vincent couldn’t possibly have shot himself successfully and done it without getting a powder burn. No one saw the act. Nobody heard a gunshot. There was no suicide note. And there was no autopsy. It doesn’t compute. I’m trying to connect the dots, much like Oliver Stone did in the movie JFK.
In order for Vincent to have shot himself, the bullet would have had to make a significant turn inside of his body. There is no report that the bullet was ever found. As far as we know, Vincent died with a bullet in his body, so the bullet should still be in his body or his remains, or at least in his casket.
Would the bullet also help determine the authenticity of the gun that was just sold?
In order to remotely prove that the seven-millimeter Lefaucheux revolver was the gun, you at least need to find the bullet. Otherwise it’s just an old rusted gun that somebody found in a field that happened to be near where Vincent [was staying when he died].
What do you think the gun from auction is, if not the gun?
Listen, the Lefaucheux seven-millimeter was probably the most widely distributed gun in the second half of the 19th century in Europe. So there were a lot of them out there. That one of them ended up being found in a field may be a coincidence.
Do you think Van Gogh’s body should be exhumed?
Yes. Very respectfully. And I have two world-famous forensic pathologists who are already intrigued and want to be part of that project.
[Let’s say] you exhume him and explore his grave for the piece of lead, using the most advanced science, and find no bullet. Then the knife theory is equally plausible. Without a bullet, you can’t even prove it was a gun and you certainly can’t prove that it was the Lefaucheux revolver that just was auctioned.
Once you start going down this rabbit hole, how do you stop yourself from just getting lost in the garden of forking paths?
Well, you have no choice. You either have to pursue all these possibilities, or you’re relegated to having only the false narrative and myth. Once you do the forensics, it becomes obvious that Vincent could not possibly have committed suicide.
Do you think do the gun that just got sold actually has anything to do with Van Gogh?
Until you show me the bullet still in Vincent Van Gogh’s remains, you can’t say it was the gun. You could say it was a gun found in a field that may be where Van Gogh was injured.
That would significantly increase the value of the gun, if they had the bullet, and it matched. On the other hand, if the bullet didn’t match, that would kind of devalue the gun. And if there’s no bullet found the knife theory is equally valid.
Do you know anything about the anonymous buyer who won the auction?
I don’t have any insight into that. I did obviously bid on the gun but it went way over my price range.